Russia Releases US Navy Veteran in Surprise Prisoner Swap

WASHINGTON (AP) — Russia and the United States carried out an unexpected prisoner swap at a time of heightened tension, exchanging a Navy veteran imprisoned by Moscow on Wednesday for a convicted Russian drug trafficker serving a lengthy prison sentence in the United States. Joined.

The deal involved reed trevoran American imprisoned for almost three years, it would have been a remarkable diplomatic maneuver even in peacetime, but it was even more surprising because it was done as Russia’s war with Ukraine it has brought relations with the United States to their lowest point in decades.

At the other end of the exchange was Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot serving a 20-year federal sentence for conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US.

Even as the Biden administration touted the swap, it made it clear that the resolution did not herald a broader breakthrough between the countries. Russian forces remain resolute in their assault on Ukraine, the US and Western allies continue to impose punitive sanctions, and other Americans, including Brittney Griner, WNBA star and Michigan corporate security executive Paul Whelan, are still imprisoned in Russia.

The exchange, the culmination of longstanding requests from both countries as well as private diplomatic wrangling, took place in Turkey when “the two planes stopped next to each other, essentially, and then got off,” Reed’s father said. , Joey.

“I think it will really come home to us when we finally get to see it and touch it,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Reed, a 30-year-old former Marine from Texas, was arrested in the summer of 2019 after Russian authorities said he assaulted an officer while police were driving him to a police station after a night of heavy drinking. . He was later sentenced to nine years in prison, although the US government described him as wrongfully detained and pressed for his release, while his family asserted his innocence and raised concerns about his deteriorating health, including coughing up blood and a hunger strike.

Even on Wednesday, her parents’ joy was tempered by their reported concern about her physical appearance. They were struck by his unsteady gait and how thin he looked when television footage captured him walking, flanked by guards, from a van to the plane.

“He just didn’t sound like himself,” said Reed’s mother, Paula, recalling their brief phone conversation while he was on the plane. “We just asked him how he was doing and he said, ‘I’m fine.’ But he always says that even when he’s not. And he just didn’t sound like his normal self.”

Reed was on his way back to the US, traveling with Roger Cartsens, the US government’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.

President Joe Biden, who met with Reed’s parents in Washington last month, praised Reed’s release, noting, without elaborating, that “the negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I did not make light”. The Russian government also confirmed the deal, with the Foreign Ministry describing the exchange as the “result of a long negotiation process.”

A senior Biden administration official warned that the negotiations focused on a “low-key set of prisoner issues” and did not represent a change in the US government’s condemnation of Russia’s violence against Ukraine.

“Where we can have discussions on issues of mutual interest, we will try to talk to the Russians and have a constructive conversation without in any way changing our approach to the terrible violence in Ukraine,” the official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity. rules established by the administration.

Yaroshenko, meanwhile, was arrested in Liberia in 2010 and extradited to the US on drug charges. The Justice Department has described him as “a seasoned international drug trafficker” who conspired to distribute thousands of kilograms of cocaine around the world.

A lawyer for Yaroshenko, who in 2020 unsuccessfully tried to have his client released on humanitarian grounds due to the coronavirus pandemic, did not return an email seeking comment Wednesday.

Russia had sought Yaroshenko’s return for years while at the same time rejecting pleas from high-level US officials to release Reed, who was approaching his 1,000th day in custody after being convicted of what a US official, Ambassador John Sullivan, denounced as “ridiculous” evidence.

The prisoner swap was the most high-profile release during the Biden administration of an American deemed wrongfully detained abroad and came even as families of detainees who met with administration officials over the past year described the officials as indifferent to the idea of ​​an exchange.

The US government does not normally accept such exchanges. He fears that doing so could encourage foreign governments to take more Americans prisoner as a way of extracting concessions. And he worries about a possible false equivalence between a wrongfully detained American, who US officials believe was Reed, and a duly convicted criminal.

In this case, however, the United States decided the deal made sense in part because Yaroshenko had already served a large portion of his prison sentence, which has now been commuted, a senior official told the AP on condition of anonymity.

In a statement, the Reed family thanked Biden “for making the decision to bring Trevor home,” other administration officials and Bill Richardson, the former US ambassador to the United Nations. The family said Richardson traveled to Moscow hours before the ukrainian war started hoping to secure Reed’s release.

Reed’s release did not have an immediate impact on the cases of other Americans detained by Russia. Griner, for example, was arrested in February after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil. Whelan is being held on espionage-related charges that his family claims are false.

Biden said Wednesday that “we will not stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends.” US officials have described Whelan as wrongfully detained, but have so far not characterized Griner’s case in those terms. Whelan was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison; Griner is awaiting trial.

At home in Texas, the Reeds had been given a general sense of progress and had even begun cleaning Trevor’s room in preparation for his return home, removing paperwork from his bed so he would have a place to sleep.

It was a welcome change from a month ago when they were rallying outside the White House for their son’s release, then pressing their case in a private meeting with Biden.

“We’ve been saying for over a year that if we could talk to the president, we felt like we could make this happen, and that’s exactly what happened,” Joey Reed said.

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